The Trend Report Podcast

Episode 114: CEO Chat
with Jim Contois of Parcel

Summary Keywords

outdoor, contract, furniture, manufacture, customer, chair, picnic, table, selling, website, office furniture, sales, manufacturers, tools, relationships, wood, steel, designers, outside, relationships, story, education, healthcare, corporate, offices, hospitality

Sid Meadows, Host of The Trend Report
Jim Contois, Founder of Parcel

Coach Sid Meadows: Hey, everybody, and welcome to this week's episode of The Trend Report. I'm glad you're here for our first installment in 2023 of our CEO chat series. I know this is a favorite of our listeners, and I'm glad that you're here joining us today. 

I'm excited to welcome a “new friend”, if you will, to the show—someone I just had the opportunity to meet through LinkedIn. We're going to have a little conversation today about him and his business. So Jim, I'm going to totally butcher your last name, I think… Just say it for me. 


Jim Contois: It’s Jim Contois—“Can-toy.”


Sid Meadows: So Jim Cantois, the CEO of Parcel. They're an outdoor furniture manufacturer. We're gonna dive in. So Jim, welcome to the show.


Jim: Thank you very much. I appreciate it.


Sid: So tell us about you. Tell us how you got started in the industry, if you will?


Jim: You bet. So I've been around for almost 30 years, not quite…


Sid: I want it out loud!


Jim: But actually, my background is an industrial designer. So I started in product design and worked a few corporate jobs as a corporate designer. Starting in architectural building products, I worked at a company called Armstrong in Pennsylvania. Most people know them from ceilings and floors. 

Then, after I “cut my teeth” with that type of corporate job, I moved over to Green Bay and really started getting involved in furniture. I did a probably 5-6 year stint at KGI as one of their staff designers, and then I had an opportunity to move to Iowa to go work out at Allsteel, which this was in early 2002. At that time, they were starting to put a ton of money into that brand, and efforts and resources to try and build it up to one of the kind of a premium brands, which they actually successfully did.

So around that time, they kind of lured me and offered a job as their first really in-house designers that work for the organization. It was a great opportunity, and I had spent probably about 5-6 years there kind of climbing that ladder and ended up essentially directing industrial design by the time that I left. Through the course of that time, I started as a designer and ended up becoming really kind of a steward and worked with a lot of outside designers and started to see how that aspect of the design business works. 

All of us probably know that the furniture industry is commonly known to work with freelance designers to design a product. I started doing that and working with some of these people that were that were outside designers, working with them on projects in out of Allsteel and for that brand. 

Eventually, probably around 2008 I really started to get the bug that “this was the right time in my life”—if I was going to try to jump off of a cliff and do something different. It was time to do it! My kids were really little, they could eat peanut butter jelly sandwiches, and nobody would know the difference. So I quit. It was actually right around 2008, which we remember was terrible economically.


Sid: Yeah, it sure was.


Jim: But you know, it ended up being what it was…


Sid: I want to ask you a question real quick, though. Before we dive in there…

So you had a great, great history, your career, if you will, in our industry. You’ve learned a lot, used your design background, helped design products, worked with outsource designers, and I've interviewed several of them. 

What was it that gave you that entrepreneurial bug that was like, “Okay, now is the time for me to go jump off this cliff,” if you will? Because I did the same thing…


Jim: That's a really good question. I think that I really just came to a point where I had, in some ways I think I'm seeing this, you know, through my career as time goes on is that I get to this point where I feel like I don't even want to say master something that's I don't think I'll be master of anything, but get to the point where it's like, “okay, this is becoming maybe old hat,” maybe that's another way to put it. I need something to do, I need something to keep me interested. I like to make things and like to create things. It's just the DNA right now. 

I looked at it as this was a good time to do it. I should try it. There's no reason why shouldn't; I have one life, I should take these risks. They're not bad. They're really not that big of a deal. They really aren't. You know, if you look 10 generations ago, I probably would have been past my life expectancy right now. So, you know, why not?


Sid: Well, I think that's a really great message for the people listening—you're at a time in your life, like you said need to do something different, maybe things are becoming routine and very habitual and not really exciting you. You wanted to do something and you realized, “Hey, I want to do something for myself, why not go do this, and I can try it. And if it works great, that's awesome. But if it doesn't work, that's okay, too.” And you put yourself out there, you leaned into your dreams. I think it's a great message for the people listening—lean into your dreams.


Jim: At that time, I had developed a fair amount of confidence, while I could ride the Shirttails. I witnessed this, I was able to go to mid-sized companies in this industry and say, “Hey, I just bared witness to a company that came on the market and got some attention and did some really good work.” And I gained that knowledge. I had a point in my career where I actually truly believed in the knowledge that I had was valued. And so that gave me the confidence to go knock on doors for 10 years, actually.


Sid: So your first entry into the world of entrepreneurship was actually designing products for other people.


Jim: Correct. So for about 10 years, right after I left Allsteel, I worked for a bunch of manufacturers. That's great period of time in my life. I know you interviewed Max...


Sid: Yeah, I did!


Jim: He’s been a way for a period of time, a good portion of that time actually worked with another designer, and the two of us partnered quite a bit. His name's Ramsey Matson, and he's done quite a bit of work in this industry. He actually does a pretty significant custom business. He manages a custom studio for pivot interiors, and we did a lot of projects together, we worked with Indiana together. One of the other couple clients I had with SurfaceWorks up in Wisconsin. What else can I name drop?


Sid: This is really great brands already so far. 


Jim: Arcadia, Casey is a wonderful man, he is a mentor, I really liked him a lot. I have some great designs that have been in our Katie's line for 10 years, and they're still good. So they're still strong. So I did that for about 10 years, kind of knocked on those doors. Sometime around 2017 2018, I really started to realize that the outdoor category was an emerging category where there was a lot of potential. I think it was, I shouldn't say “poorly served”, but it wasn't a greatly served market with regards to product availability, selection, and target market. 

At the time, none of the clients that we were working with were interested in pursuing outdoor furniture, they were all kind of inside guys. We did a design for Arcadia, which in my mind, and I don't know, if I maybe I'll regret saying this, I really thought it should be an outdoor line, actually. But they actually created it and envisioned it in an indoor line. And it's still selling. 

Really from that, it's like that idea kept gnawing away. And I'm thinking, this should exist. I kept working on and kept working on it. By the end of 2019, I really actually made the decision that I was going to pursue it. I said, “You know what? I'm going to design a product, and I'm going to build products that work with vendors, products, I'm going to figure out how to distribute the market product, I'm going to brand it, I'm going to do everything.” 

The reason why I felt foolish / confident enough to do that is through the course of consulting for 10 years, I really had a great opportunity to work with a lot of these people—presidents and owners of the company—and I really got a chance to see the underbelly. Then through consulting, I got to actually see how the whole machine worked. I thought—at least I have enough exposure to not be totally intimidated or feel like I had horrible blind spots—and so I decided to put the effort into figuring it out.


Sid:Jim, I really appreciate everything you've shared with us so far. And I love the story of how you became an entrepreneur, and how you leaned into some of the things that you've learned. But I'm curious you talked a little bit about outdoor furniture and why but where did the name come from? Where did the name Parcel? 


Jim: I guess the only story behind the name is that—you sit down, you write a whole list of things that kind of makes sense, and I thought of “Parcel” being like context of a plot of land or a little corner of land outdoors. So it seems like it kind of worked structurally with that concept. There seemed to be some familiarity with it. 

Then secondly, it's a natural word, it's a short word. And guess what? was available—so it just worked!


Sid: Well, you're highlighting some of the challenges that you go through when starting a business, or when you're actually developing a product for that matter. It’s all the little things like, “is the URL address available? How do I spell it? Can people remember it? Is it simple or not? 20 syllables long or 10 words long?” Those are all the real struggles of starting something right out of the gate. So you started the whole idea in 2018, started designing some products and stuff… What was the first product that you designed?


Jim: Actually, it was really a picnic table, we looked at the market, and it seemed almost like this classic kind of American piece of furniture. Really, the only thing that existed in a commercial aspect was either stuff that was really utilitarian, looked like playground furniture. There were some entries in some European products that are some great brands, like Extremists or Qatal out of Spain. They produce beautiful products. Extremists has a beautiful picnic table, but they're really, really high priced from a practical standpoint, and they're not really available in this market. 

It felt like we should start with something like that. Then just because of my background with product development, and doing systems design, and things like that, I know that you need, basically a collection of products. With this first product line, we hit this real core, foundation type product. I think that’s the best best name for it—it’s tables, pedestal tables, and picnic tables. 

We certainly have some seating and benches—we added a couple little milk stools; we've got an adirondack chair. It's grown over the last couple of years a little bit, but it's really this core line that, from the practical standpoint of starting a business—you need to have something that's your go-to.


Sid: It's classic American, right? Then you add to it, start expanding it, and growing from there—which I love, because we all have to start somewhere! We’ve got to start with something. So, you saw the need in the market for more outdoor furniture in the contract space. Then you started designing products, and you introduced your first product. How many products are you up to now?


Jim: I think our SKU list is still not that high—maybe 30 or 40 something. I think one of the things that I have actually found, to my surprise, in launching this and starting to get into the market is this… Originally, my target was corporate amenity spaces, and that was probably just because that's where it came from. That's where I really thought there was an absence of good, suitable product. Now, we've gotten into hospitality, bar and restaurants, breweries, things like that. We've gotten into Higher Ed, gotten into colleges. We've done a small airport, we did a fire station. Some K-through-12 stuff. But what I have really been surprised is how many different vertical markets people have found interesting.


Sid: I think when 2020 happened—because you started right before 2020—so we had that whole event for two years. It certainly highlighted outdoors, and people wanting to go outdoor. Though I think there was a trend emerging prior to that about extending the office to the outside, after that, we really focused on how we can extend the office outside. 

So you got products that fit that contract need to actually take the office outside. It doesn't surprise me that all these different places want to include some type of outdoor space as part of their organization, whether it's hospitality, a college university, K-through-12 school... We all love to be outside, especially when the weather's pretty!


Jim: Yes, absolutely. Actually what I have even found out is that that's not just in the Sunbelt… I mean, one of my best markets for its size certainly is up in Minnesota. I've done a couple corporate spaces, and I think multifamily as well.


Sid: Minnesota would be a state that would be really hard to be outdoors in December and January, but in May, June, July, and August. That's beautiful. Because in Texas where I am, July and August, you don't want to be outside. It's kind of flipped. But it is interesting though, when you go to places that have outdoor spaces, how full they are, people want to be out there. 

Just as an example, this is not necessarily tied to our business or industry. But there's a cute little coffee shop about three miles from me. And I go there occasionally to have a coffee, I take my laptop, and they have Wi Fi and all that stuff. And I'll go hang on to work. They have a very, very small indoor space, like maybe seats 10 people in that outdoor space. It's humongous, and it's where the people gravitate. When the weather is nice, who wouldn't want to work out there? The Wi Fi works out there. 

So there is a big need and demand, and we see it with more and more people coming into the outdoor space. So with that, let's talk for a minute about what separates you guys from the competition. What makes you different or special?


Jim: I think there's a bunch of things. I can look at that from where the product is coming from and how it's sourced and things like that. I could also look at it from how we compare to other manufacturers in the marketplace. So there's probably some more things that I can compare against. 

So if you look at where we are in the market, and where I see the rest of the market, there's a lot of outdoor furniture that's kind of generated from the hospitality industry. So now much of that is heavily influenced by dining, and it's heavily influenced by kind of lounging around and being squishy, goofy, comfortable type of culture. We're definitely not that. In fact, I don't even think I'll ever do upholstered work. At the moment, it just doesn't seem like a category that we would fit in. Because I think it's already really quite filled, you have that which is not necessarily appropriate for a lot of environments. It's appropriate if you want to lounge, and I think I maybe mentioned it before in the conversation that there is a lot of outdoor furniture that's really utilitarian. It looks like it belongs in a softball league park, you know, out in the open. 

Then there is a category of furniture, which is really quite nice. There's a lot of European imports, they're hard to get—sometimes they're prohibitively expensive, sometimes their distribution channels aren't great. Sometimes their lead times are excessively long. So you know, we certainly look really good compared to companies like that. So I think that that's some aspect of how we fit in. Our product is much, much more robust. I mean, I think some of our tables weighed 350 pounds. 


Sid: I want to reframe what I heard you say, and then I have a follow up question. So basically, what I asked you is tell us about your value proposition and what I heard… And I picked up four little phrases. 

First was materials, and the type of materials that you're using. 

Second was the design of the product, paying close attention to the design of the product, and maybe leaning a little bit to the influence of the European style design. 

Then I heard price point and lead time were some of the things that really kind of separate you as a brand. 

And I want to go back to the material that you mentioned, can you tell us a little bit about the types of material that you're using? You mentioned one table way 350 pounds. Tell us about the materials that you're using. 


Jim: So most most of the product we make is really kind of the same formula. It's the same simple ingredients. It is for our metal work, which you know, if you can imagine a table, it's got four metal legs and a wooden top. Well, we'll start with that kind of quick idea in your head. The metal we do, it's 11 gauge steel tube, it's eighth inch thick steel tube, it's really pretty heavy stuff. The coatings that we use on it, we actually borrow some stuff from the automotive industry. Then we're using a really, really high grade architectural level powder paint for the top coat. So it's robust, I guess we'll stay.


Sid: I want to jump in there, because the word that comes to my mind when I listen to you describe that is “innovation.” You look outside of our industry, because you have metal products that are heavy gauge steel, what's going outside. You look outside of our industry, to an industry where everything they make goes out and they've done a really good job. 


Jim: Cars nowadays do not rust really nearly as bad as they used to, and we're using that exact same technology that they use to do frames and body panels. Then also just another interesting thing, ties into working with vendors and finding the right people to work with—we work with a partner. 

She is about her businesses about 90 miles south of us, in the southeast corner of Iowa, and she owns a metal fab shop her her family. The one thing that really piqued my interest in working with her, aside from her willingness to work with me as a startup was, she's solar powered. So you go to her site, and it's all filled with solar power—all these panels, and she ends up being kind of a zero. She actually produces more than she consumes, so it's an interesting little story, but a great story.

Those little things do help market. They open a door, and they're like a good conversation starter. So, you know, just from my marketing background, working with all these companies, you pick up on little tidbits. But anyway, we basically pieced a lot of our metal work through a series of vendors, coders, welders, things like that. 

Right now, being in Iowa, we're mostly the steel workers around here. But anyway, you were asking about what materials. So the wood, and this is a little bit of a story of like the trial and error of starting a new product from scratch…


Sid: There's always trials and errors. 

Jim: Oh yeah, and it's all fun and games, but when things don't work in the field, you have a very, very, very big problem. And, you know, for the first you know, this is kind of the downside, and the risk of doing this and being an entrepreneur is that you make a lot of guesses, and you end up believe in yourself, and you believe you're making the right choices, but you still have to take some risks. So the first wood that we actually used, and went through a really super interesting process of like, ultra high temperatures that helped with stability, it helped with rot resistance. And it made it it was beautiful product, it was really, really, really nice. However, though, it made the wood really brittle. And we had problems with cracking in the field. And so you know, and it was, it was pretty painful. At first, the first like year, year and a half of product we had in the field, we were we were having problems with and anybody in this industry knows that, you know, this type of transaction in a commercial level, you're expected to stand behind your product, you have to warrant it. And if it doesn't work, you have to replace it. And you have to pick up the tab for him. And we had to do that a lot. It felt like a lot. I guess in retrospect, it wasn't, it was enough, it was unknown. You're spending money. It's always a lot when you're spending money, and you're starting up and you're trying to invest in the company. But then you're also trying to go back and make sure that those those those products are right, so we had to do that. And that was that was tough. Now, this was maybe the first year year and a half of product, which was during COVID, which was relatively slow. So you know, my exposure had some glimpses, and we knew that we needed a different solution. And I think what we have right now is actually really, really good product. The materials we ended up using going with we use a type of Southern Yellow Pine, which is unlike pine that you get or for that you get for two by fours, which is really songs. Southern Yellow Pine is really hard wood, it's about as hard as cherry actually and where it's grown. It's grown mostly from East Texas, all the way to the Carolinas. So it's that it's really young. And I think it has actually the statistic of being the fastest growing commercially harvested tree in North America. So I want


Sid: to point out, you're using a renewable resource, you started out something the tried didn't work. You looked for another solution, you found a solution. That's a really great hardwood. And it's a renewable resource because the tree can reproduce itself really quickly. And it's abundant. It's somebody who lives in Texas and has a daughter who goes to school in East Texas. There pine trees everywhere. So yeah, they're everywhere. They


Jim: call him loblolly pines. Actually, I don't know if you've heard that term before. But loblolly pine is, is actually the species name, but from an industry standpoint, they call it Southern Yellow Pine. But yeah, it is. And it's kind of, you know, the I think we're stree that's in that part of the country has been increasing in productivity over the last like 60 years. So it's a really, really good sustainable story. And it works outside, you know, we're we actually go all the way down to a mill in Alabama, to have them cut it to our spec to make sure it's the right cuts of the wood and it's processed the right way. So we have actually, again, going back to trying to figure out all the parts and pieces of starting a business and figuring out that supply chain, we have to end up going all the way down there and I buy, I buy it at a truck at a time. That's


Sid: well, you're building a really great sustainability story for your organization as well. And I really appreciate the the tie in to working with suppliers who are also committed to sustainability and the story of your metal fabricator using solar power. I think it is so important because as an industry, we consume in our products, they manufacture products, a lot of our world's natural resources, and be sure that we're focused on giving back and doing making smart business decisions and working with people that are in alignment with Our strategies, and our vision is really important. It sounds like you've tapped into those to help tell your sustainability story and make that a strategic advantage for you as well. And I


Jim: think it's, it's not just a story, it's actually it's real. You know, that's, that's the one thing that I do get kind of angry and being in a product development role, we're producing things and all the time and that production consumes things, there's no way to get around it. And, you know, I think that you can do it in a mindful way, you know, you can do that by choosing materials that you can get more materials out of, I mean, you know, you got these pine trees grow on a 30 year cycle, corn grows on a year, it's really the same thing. It's not, it's long as it's managed, right? It's, it's still very, very, very productive. And in addition to that, it's building products that actually will last. That's one thing now, you know, our industry is horrible that after seven years, they throw everything away, because the lease is up. And I mean that that does happen a lot. And you know, a lot of outdoor furniture, you know, you look at the warranties and outdoor furniture, it's usually between one and three years. It's really abysmal. Now, I'm not saying that these products that are being sold in the market will last between one to three years, so probably last longer than that. But, you know, that gives you kind of an indication of how usable they are over time. And, you know, we certainly have a five year warranty, which, you know, actually, that's not how you look at it. But I think that if you take care of their furniture, it will last decades. So totally agree. Yeah. I think that's I think that's part of it as well, too. I think it's not building disposable products, so important to know where it's coming from. So,


Sid: Jim, let's switch gears for just a second and tell us about the future. Like, what are you working on? Where are you guys headed? You know, you sounds like you have some amazing products, we are going to drop the link to your website down in our show notes. There. But you tell us a little about some of the things that are coming for you guys and the direction you're headed?


Jim: Well, you know, I think I can answer that, again, in probably two buckets. One is certainly strategically what we're trying to do with the business and where we're trying to move that. And then the other one is, what the fun stuff is where the product is gonna go. So you know, from a strategic standpoint, I am still very much in the process of filling out reps and representation throughout the country. And maybe about a third of the country fall, I have green reps in Texas. Good rep in Northern California. And there's a few more I've actually about three or four different really good reps. And I just added Bill Corbett, up in New York and Pennsylvania, I think, and Mike Webb is another person we picked up and I think Ohio. But anyway, so there's still a lot of areas of the country that I'm still looking for good reps. So that's certainly one strategic thing. We are continuously. You know, when I went back, when I worked at HMI, we had this rapid continuous improvement. That's what the word was. That's what the phrase was, they heard it hundreds of times, and I believe it. So we are certainly trying to, you know, make our production run better and make our relationship and our working relationship with our vendors run better, because this is a lead time industry. And so we're trying to make sure that that those things are working, making sure your costs are good, you know, all of those unfortunate pragmatic things of running a business. So that's an in that bucket. But you know, the other bucket with regards to product, I consider this line that we have really kind of an inaugural line. I think it is what it is, I look at the likelihood of us launching more collections, I think is a better way to describe it. And probably because of my background, I'm certainly interested in different types of materials. You know, right now we're using wood and steel, I don't think you know, I think if we want something else, we can use different materials, just to increase our interest in the marketplace. But we also are probably going to leverage some of her other vendors. You know, I'm probably looking into certainly more metal furniture. There's certainly a lot of different plastics that work well outside high density polyethylene is a good one that a lot of people use. Yeah, I mean, there's there's a, there's a bunch of things that keep swimming through my mind as far as like, where to go with this. But you know, I think we are, I think we will certainly stay you know, within the markets that we've already had access to. We may be even me turn it a little bit more to education, focused products, because I think that that's a learning that that's a really big opportunity. So we might try and start to you know, put a little bit of a an accent on what we talk about when it comes to that segment. So I guess I'm not really sure it's hard to say but


Sid: you know, you're no different than any anybody else, right? You're literally entrepreneurs, leaders, CEOs are always thinking of ideas, ways to grow their business, and I liked how you broke it into the strategic initiatives, adding more independent reps looking at your supply chain and then also looking at products and that prod It means looking at product innovation, looking at new collections collaborations, and also listening to your customers about what products they need, some of the best ideas come directly from our customers. So Jim, as we start to wrap up, I just want to first off say, it's been a pleasure to meet you. And I really appreciate all the absolutely well, we met on LinkedIn, I actually saw a LinkedIn post that you and I read up a little bit about you guys. And I reached out and said, I think you'd make a great guest on my show, because I always like highlighting younger or newer companies or people doing really cool things. And I think you fit in that category really well, because you are a young company, you're facing the world head on taking on a category that is got some gaps in it inside of our industry, and focusing on outdoors. I think it's absolutely fantastic. Again, doing really cool things as it relates to innovation, sustainability, and leading the way I think, and then in this category about your furniture. So I really appreciate you being here.


Jim: Good. I'm glad you are serving the market as you do.


Sid: So I do my best, do my best. So any final thoughts you'd like to leave with our community about parcel about what you do that will help them to remember you when it comes time to specify furniture for the outdoor space?


Jim: Oh, I should have been prepared for a question like this, you know, I think you know, if I can get anybody that is listening to this, just to look at our website and see what it is, you know, I think that you'll see right off the bat, the versatility of the product. And I think if you do get an opportunity to touch and feel it, you'll see the robustness of it. You know, I think it's coming from a small business that is, you know, we're made in the middle, we're writing iOS. So we're from that perspective, and I think we know how to make stuff. I think I talked I think I figured out how to make furniture and figured out how to make furniture that's valuable to the marketplace. And I think it's worth using.


Sid: That's fantastic. So again, I really appreciate you being here. One last question: if our community would like to get in touch with you, what is the best way for them to do that?


Jim: I would say certainly through the website—there's kind of a generic email that you can go to that actually goes to my desktop, or you can connect with me on LinkedIn.


Sid: Perfect! If you're a frequent listener to the show, you know that my request is—if you reach out to Jim to connect to him, please let him know that you heard him on the Trend Report. That way, he knows that he absolutely is getting some reach. 

Thank you all for joining us today, and we'll see you again in a couple of weeks. Take care everyone.


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